12 Ways to Be a Good Follower

Yesterday I wrote about how every Great Leader Needs Followers—otherwise there’s no one to lead. Today I want to address ways that people who have no desire to lead can support the leader they have in the best possible way. Here are 12 ways to be a good follower in your organization.

  1. Be aware of what the people around you are doing as well what the pressures are on them.Awareness: Be aware of what the people around you are doing as well what the pressures are on them. Understand what upsets them as well as what motivates them.

Consider how your actions will affect them—for better or for worse. Also think about how your actions or comments will affect the leader of your group or organization. Will it make his job better? Will it create problems for you down the line? Remember that all employees are human beings and thus are subject to emotional reactions.

  1. Backup: Bosses are almost always busy and are constantly keeping multiple plates spinning. Anything you can do to back up your boss will be noted and much appreciated. Learn what his or her problems are and find ways to help solve them. Notice what isn’t getting done and see if you can pick up some of it—or at least make it easier for your boss to do it. Find what has fallen through the cracks and see if you can retrieve it. Arm your boss with information that will help him to win a battle. If you become the boss’s right-hand person, you become both a good follower and an invaluable member of her team. 
  1. Collaboration: You work in a department, unit, or team and the group succeeds best when it works together. Share your ideas and applaud the good ideas of others. Build on the positive work of others. Bring out the best in others whenever you can and add your contribution to the end result. When it comes to group collaboration, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  1. Courage: If you have a good idea, can improve a process, possess valuable information, or don’t agree with your boss’s approach—speak up! The group doesn’t always have the right approach or want to go in a totally new direction even if that will improve the end result. Your boss probably doesn’t always have the best ideas but will appreciate hearing some from you. It’s usually good to go with the flow but not if you think it’s wrong to do so.
  1. A good follower is someone the leader can depend on. Say what you mean, keep your promises, do what you’re supposed to do, meet your deadlines, honor your commitments. Dependability A good follower is someone the leader can depend on. Say what you mean, keep your promises, do what you’re supposed to do, meet your deadlines, honor your commitments. It’s that simple. 
  1. Diplomacy: You may have strong opinions or beliefs that are the opposite of the strong opinions and beliefs held by other folks in the organization. Learn to speak your mind in ways that do not insult, embarrass, or humiliate them. Best case, they will be more likely to listen to you and agree with you. Worst case, they will be less likely to seek revenge or undermine you.
  1. Encouragement: Bosses might not admit this but they know they’re not always right and sometimes question if they’ve made the right decision or are approaching a project in the right way. If you think your boss is doing a good job, tell him that. If you think your boss handled a problem the right way or made the right decision in a tough situation, let her know. It doesn’t have to be big deal but the boss will appreciate your encouragement.
  1. Don’t lie about a mistake that you made. Sooner or later these dishonest actions will come back to bite you—and you won’t like it when that happens. Honesty: No one likes a suck-up or the team member who tries to steal another person’s ideas. If you’re going to succeed, do it on your own merits.

Don’t try to flatter the boss or butter him up. Don’t take credit for something another person has done. Don’t lie about a mistake that you made. Sooner or later these dishonest actions will come back to bite you—and you won’t like it when that happens. (See Number 12.)

  1. Initiative: Don’t wait for your boss to tell you what to do. Yes, that is his or her job but good followers are not drones who will stagnate without constant direction. Besides, maybe there’s something your boss would love to have or to accomplish but it’s so far down on the To-Do List that it may as well be on Pluto. Winkle it out and volunteer to do it. Maybe there’s something your boss has committed to but never had the time to address. You’ll take a load off both his plate and his conscience if you can make it happen. 
  1. Motivation: A good follower arrives at work motivated to do a good job, of course, but also motivated to go beyond what is expected. If you see a fellow team member who is swamped, ask what you can do to help. Volunteer to take on a project, assignment, or extra effort of some kind. Never, ever, say, “That’s not my job” or “That can’t be done.” Show that you are ready for more than what’s listed on your job description and you will be a big hit with everyone. They will support you in turn.
  1. This is a follower who is not only ready to move to the next step but is already halfway there.  Preparation: A good follower knows the team’s goals, knows the processes, knows the material, and meets deadlines. This is a person who shows up at meetings informed about what needs to be done and ready to do it. This is a follower who is not only ready to move to the next step but is already halfway there.
  1. Support There are many ways to support your boss but one of the most important is to not create problems that he or she will have to resolve. If you’re a problem for your boss, you become a squeaky wheel, something that demands attention for a person who already has a lot to do, not enough time to do it in, and lots of pressure to perform.

If Human Resources has to meet with your boss to report your misbehavior, rule breaking, or harassment, you have become a problem. If you are perpetually tardy or leave early, arrive for meetings unprepared, irritate other members of the group, or cause comment in the management ranks, you are a problem. Bosses at any level don’t like problems and eventually will find a way to get rid of someone who causes them.

I know, that’s a lot to absorb and internalize. But you learned many of these things in kindergarten, on the playground, in team sports, at church, and at camp. If they are totally new, you’ve probably been raised in a cave by wolves. After all, these 12 ways to be a good follower all boil down to a few simple concepts: be present, be polite, be accurate, be helpful, be honest and be prepared. Do that and your boss will love you for it. You’ll like yourself, too.

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About Aline Kaplan

In my professional career I created marketing and communications functions for a number of big public companies and for small, VC-funded start-ups in the high-technology industry. Now I do marketing consulting work. I also write and publish science novels and short stories. I’m a docent for Boston by Foot, giving historical and architectural walking tours of Boston.

1 thought on “12 Ways to Be a Good Follower

  1. Great advice! This is especially useful to those just beginning their careers, for they are all followers. Learn to follow well and you are on your way to becoming a leader if that is where the path leads you.

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